Our March story is from our newest anthology, In the Spirit of 13, where we took “spirit” to mean the supernatural, the debunking of same or simply alcohol!
Jayne Barnard writes crime and suspense fiction in which women reclaim their power. She is the author of two acclaimed series: the award-winning Falls books featuring ex-Mountie, Lacey McCrae and the YA Steam Punk, Maddie Hatter adventures.
Sue’s husband, Steve, is directing a play set in an old mansion famed for an unsolved death and a jewel theft, Sue faces down strange lights, ghosts and a secretive psychic to unravel the century-old mystery of the missing necklace.
RUBIES FOR ROMEO
By J.E. Barnard
“Young Julia was found unconscious the next morning.” The tour guide pointed up the narrow back stairs. “Right there on that landing.”
I mouthed “tour group” to my husband, Steve. He backed the other end of our rolled canvas down the rear porch steps so I could step sideways, away from the half-open kitchen windows. The aged planks groaned under my feet. Had they heard? We weren’t supposed to start setting up until they’d all gone.
Someone inside asked, “Did she recover?”
“No. She never regained consciousness.” The guide began explaining early 20th-century cooking arrangements. But the next questioner wasn’t interested in the gleaming copper kitchen boiler, the pinnacle of household tech in prewar Penticton. Pre-Great War, that was.
“Was it murder?” he asked.
“Have you held a séance?” someone else called out. “Maybe she could tell you where the necklace is.” My arms were wobbling like wet linguini under the weight of the roll, but the others kept asking until the guide gave in, or up, and offered further details.
“Although her official cause of death was brain injury from falling down the stairs, gossip at the time was that her heart was broken before her head was, either from the necklace accusation or by a young man. Both theories are explored in the mystery play that starts tonight. See the poster in the gift shop. Now, if you’ll come this way. Carefully. The treads are steep, and there are no handholds on these stairs.”
“I bet she was a star-crossed lover,” a woman at the rear said.
“Imagine carrying cans of hot water up those stairs every morning,” another said. “In a long skirt, too. They should have run a pipe from the boiler up through the ceiling.”
As her voice receded up the narrow back stairs, I eased open the kitchen door. Empty. Whew.
“All clear,” I told Steve.
As another tour began its thudding descent of the main stairs, timed to keep it from colliding with the one going up the back stairs, we scuttled through the restored kitchen, along the butler’s pantry with its glass-fronted cupboards, and into the dark-paneled main hall. I angled my end to line us up with the library’s double doors.
Steve whispered, “Stop.”
“No,” I hissed back. “They’ll catch us in—”
The library doors’ ornate handles dug into my back. Smothering a yelp, I gripped the roll awkwardly with one arm while the other groped behind me for a handle. I barely got it turned before the first tourists’ feet appeared through the mahogany stair railing above Steve’s head. He shoved the roll end, and me, out of the hall. I stumbled backward, caught my heel on the carpet, and staggered sideways to collapse into an upholstered armchair. Steve one-handed his end and softly shut the library door.
“Oh, it’s only you,” a woman’s voice said.
This time, I yelped.
Clapping my hand over my mouth, I lifted my head. The woman who played the medium in my séance scene was peering from the servants’ passage in the back corner.
“Thalia?” Steve lowered the roll to the floor. “You’re here early.”
I sniffed. “And what’s that smell?”
“Incense.” She stepped into the room, trailed by a teen heartthrob in the old movie-idol mold, with full pouting lips, eyelashes fit for a mascara commercial, and dark soft curls brushed off his tanned forehead. “Tib, meet Steve, our director. This is Sue, who plays Mrs. Gander opposite me and Angie. My nephew here is Mercutio in the high school play.”
The boy smirked. “In fair Verona, where we lay our scene.”
Steve said, “From ancient grudge break to new mutiny, where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.” As the youth gaped, he went on, “And speaking of unclean—incense? Do I even want to know?”
“My method,” Thalia said loftily. “Don’t worry. We hid in that back passageway while the tour group was in here. They didn’t see us.”
“Sneak out the way you came,” Steve ordered. “Unless you both want to help haul props up from the outside cellar.”
“Tib can,” Thalia said, and pointed. The boy followed Steve into the narrow passage. Their footsteps faded along behind the library wall toward the kitchen.
“Incense, huh?” I asked Thalia as I fanned my overheated face. “Some tourist just suggested a séance. Want to ask the ghosts about the lost necklace?”
“Shh,” she said, and cocked a finger toward the hallway doors.
“This is the Italian countess, who owned the necklace.” It was Maureen, the historic house’s manager, talking. Having taken the tour when our community theater was writing our mystery play, I knew they wouldn’t come in here. They’d done the library before the kitchen.
She went on, “It held five rubies: the main one, a large pendant surrounded by tiny diamonds, bracketed by filigreed golden wings, each anchored by a smaller ruby, and ending in a ruby chip.”
“This what the old lady’s wearing?”
“She had a similar sapphire set.” Maureen’s voice corralled their attention again. “There’s a very old photo of the rubies in the gift shop. The countess and her nephew, this house’s first owner, both died in the Great Flu of 1918. Most of the family’s wealth vanished in the Crash of ’29. Although the descendants searched the place many times before they were forced to sell in 1940, the ruby necklace was never found.”
“Are any of them folks still around?” someone asked.
“Some descendants still live in the valley,” Maureen said. “If you dare visit after dark, there’s a mystery play starting tonight. Great prizes for those who guess the correct solution to the necklace’s disappearance. Tickets are available in the gift shop. So are necklaces like the missing one. Not real rubies, naturally.”
She led them toward the gift shop, in what used to be a visitors’ parlor by the front door. I slipped out of the library behind them and settled onto a bench to rest my feet. That canvas roll and five others had to be hung in the play’s rooms in the next three hours to hide smoke detectors, fire exits and other modern fittings. The special effects equipment had to be set up, plugged in, and tested before showtime. I wanted supper, too.
I wasn’t scheduled to play the part of Mother Gander tonight, so I’d be at my watercolor portrait class, working on my picture of a young girl’s face, with chestnut hair rolled back from her forehead and the collar of her lacy blouse rising almost to her chin. It was my most complicated portrait ever, and I was determined it would turn out well enough to hang here.
Two senior visitors left the gift shop with the pretty pink bags used for jewelry purchases. As they loitered for a last look at the framed photographs, one said, “I bet the girl stole them for some man, and then he ran out on her. She probably threw herself down the stairs. Especially if he’d seduced her. It would be beyond shameful for a girl of that era.”
The other tapped a picture frame. “At that age, they’re so into the dramatics. You know the actress who played Juliet in the Zeffirelli version of Romeo and Juliet was only 13? Perfect casting, but ick.”
“It seemed so romantic when we watched it for high school English,” her companion said. “And not a single teacher pointed out it was a tragedy, not a great love story to be emulated. Can’t you just see this place when they lived here, though?” She sighed.
The tour group trickled in pairs and trios out the front door, letting in wafts of sun-warmed air and the crispy scent of dried leaves from the 100-year-old elms around the property. When the last visitor was gone, Maureen scooped a wayward golden cluster from the floor and plopped onto the bench beside me, twirling the leaves between her hands.
“Sorry we ran long. The ladies always moon over a past that was a lot more romantic and sanitary than the reality. And a young man asked about the necklace dozens of times. I hope he doesn’t sneak back here to hunt for it. We don’t need anybody else getting stuck in the old ductwork.”
“There’s open ductwork?” Mike, our stage manager, entered from the kitchen with a plastic bin in his brawny arms. “Hazards like that should have been closed off before any tourists were allowed.”
He probably pictured a hole in the floor big enough for someone to fall through, but I knew what Maureen meant. The old cold-air return holes in all the rooms were rectangular openings in the corners, a bit larger than a human foot and covered in sturdy brass grillwork.
“They’re all screwed down good now,” Maureen told him. “This was three seasons back, when the house was mostly unrestored. Two young teens decided to hide here after their tour and spend the night hunting for the necklace. I don’t know why their parents didn’t realize they weren’t there at supper time, but 911 got a call near midnight that one of them was stuck. They’d pried up a cold-air grate in a bedroom floor. One of them was feeling around between the floorboards when his shoulder got wedged.” She yawned and shook out her shoulders. “That’s why we count noses after every tour now. I’ll start my shutdown rounds while Karen’s finishing her group. Your volunteers will make sure nobody’s left in here tonight, right?”
We got the backdrops set up in almost record time. Mike mounted his lighting and special effects equipment in the main floor servants’ passages and on timers in the upstairs closets. Costumes and makeup tables were set up in an unrestored back bedroom. I escaped as far as the front porch, wishing “break a leg” to the arriving actors, before Steve caught up with me.
“Wait! I need you for Mother Gander tonight.”
“It’s Elaine’s turn. I’m going painting.”
“She had to take her mom to the hospital in Kelowna.”
Who could argue with the medical needs of elderly mothers?
The way the play was set up, adults from the community theater troupe held down some roles, and the rest were high school students doing it for Drama credits. Most parts were double cast to work around everyone’s schedules. Since each playlet took place in a different room, I hardly saw any of the cast beyond my own trio. Thalia had insisted on being the only mystic, so she was on every night and matinee. Elaine and I alternated in the role of Mrs. Gander, and our daughter was played alternately by students[m1] , Angie and Marnie. We’d both rehearsed with each girl, so my taking Elaine’s place tonight wasn’t a stretch, except that Angie, Daughter One, was in a terminal sulk over not getting to play Juliet in the school’s production. She’d mentioned at every rehearsal that her boyfriend was stuck playing Benvolio, although he’d auditioned for Mercutio. Daughter Two, Marnie, was a volleyball jockette taking Drama 20 for an easy credit. She did her part cheerfully with no unnecessary dramatics. There was an understudy for both girls, but I’d only met her once and wouldn’t know her if I saw her on the street. I’d take her over Angie any day, though. She couldn’t possibly be any more annoying.
Two hours later, I settled my floral straw bonnet atop my curly gray wig and skewered it with a hatpin. At the other makeup table, Angie was painting herself a smoky eye more worthy of an Instagram star than of a sheltered Edwardian girl. After checking that my fan and spectacles were in their proper pockets, I left her to it. When I saw her next, outside the library, she was bidding her bland, sandy-haired boyfriend a Juliet-worthy farewell, as if they faced months of exile rather than two hours on a Tuesday evening. I coughed loudly to announce my presence. The pasty-faced Romeo—er, Benvolio—slouched away toward the kitchen exit. At least, I hoped he was exiting. We didn’t need random boys roaming the halls during the performance.
Peering through the library’s wide-open double doors, Angie shuddered. “Major creep factor in here. Cold and…weird.”
“The draft is from those ill-fitting old windows,” I said. “The painted backdrop cuts off most of it.”
“I don’t like it, “she said, then shrieked as Thalia loomed around the back edge of the backdrop. She was in full mystical face paint and wore a headscarf shimmering with fake coins. Her nephew, Tib, followed her in, sniggering. Angie glared.
“Goodbye, Tib.” I pointed emphatically toward the kitchen exit.
He bit his thumb in my general direction and swaggered off.
Angie muttered, “He only got that part because everybody wants to kill him.” By which I deduced her boyfriend had lost the role to unquestionably handsome Tib.
As Thalia checked her tarot card deck at the black-draped round table, Angie and I moved a long, narrow console table across the doorway to keep the audience back. Then we shuffled to our assigned seats. A faint aroma of incense added to the mystique.
From behind the canvas backdrop, Mike, our props man, said, “Try not to cough. I’m testing the ghostly luminescence. On three.”
Pale vapor filled the space in front of the fireplace. Concealed light from somewhere behind me floated over it, projecting the figure of an adolescent girl in a long, white dress quite like Angie’s costume. Angie shuddered.
“Feel that? That’s not just a leaky window.”
“Save the dramatics for the paying audience,” Thalia snapped.
Oh yes, a fun night ahead.
The metaphorical curtain went up with a rush of cool night air from the front door. We heard the first audience group crowding around the main parlor archway. The actors’ voices rose above the shuffling of feet. The show was on.
Ten minutes later, our little séance held its audience rapt for the allotted seven minutes, and then that group moved on to watch a dining room scene. Three scenes on the main floor, three more upstairs.
Groups would rotate through all evening to watch the six playlets, and then leave their filled-in solution cards in the box on the front porch. To prevent an early winner returning to win over and over, the play had four potential solutions, only one of which was correct on any given night. Even I didn’t know the order Steve had set via dice rolls, only that a few actors would change one or two of their lines slightly to reflect that night’s solution.
Our first few séances went off without a hitch. Angie said her lines clearly. Thalia’s bangles jangled as she commanded the ghost to come forth. The fireplace ghost wavered into view on cue.
Things didn’t go so well upstairs, though. Thumps and bumps echoed down the brass ceiling grate. Between our third and fourth séances, Mike leaned from behind the screen to hand me a small black box.
“Here,” he said. “Take the ghost. I’ve gotta sort them out upstairs.”
On the very next run, while I was concentrating on my trigger finger, Angie went off script. She raised one white-clad arm and pointed a shaking finger, not at the fireplace but at a corner bookshelf the audience couldn’t see from the hallway.
“Aaaaahhh,” she quavered, instead of saying her line.
The viewers, naturally, all leaned in to look where she pointed. The barrier table wobbled.
“What’s that?” Angie shrieked.
The table tipped into the room with a resounding crash.
Thalia declaimed, “Beware. The spirit stirs among us. Don’t move or speak.” She kicked me under the table drapery. I clicked the proper ghost into being.
As soon the group moved on, Angie stood up. “That was not funny.”
“What are you talking about?” Thalia snapped.
“Didn’t you see?” Angie’s voice rose. “That girl’s face! It came right through the bookshelf. I don’t know how Tib did it, but he’s sabotaging me.”
“He wouldn’t,” Thalia snarled. “Now behave, or I won’t sign your class attendance sheet.”
Angie sat down in a surly huff, leaving me and Thalia to reset the table by the door. We got back to our chairs just as our next group arrived. This time, Angie spoke her lines to her clenched hands. I took to repeating them facing the door, since the audiences had to hear everything to have a fair shot at solving the crime. Thalia’s glare ratcheted up so much I half expected wisps of smoke to curl up from Angie’s wig.
Mike sneaked back in time for our final performance. When it ended, I shut the library door and turned on the overhead light. “What was all that noise upstairs?” I demanded.
“Teenage boys,” he growled. “Each accusing each other of sneaking around to hunt for that damned necklace.”
“Not Tib,” Thalia said. “He knows better.”
Mike gave her a look that could sour cream. “He needs a reminder. Your boyfriend, too, Angie. I’ll be having a word with your drama teacher about this.” She flounced into the passage without answering. “What’s worse,” he said, rolling up a cable with unnecessary vigor, “one or both had been into the linen closet. Some plugs were kicked loose from my timing board. They both denied it, of course. When I ran them out the kitchen door, there was another one peering from the bushes by the steps. Likely waiting to sneak in. We’ll have to check every possible hiding place before we lock up tonight.”
“I’ll have a word with Tib,” Thalia promised, and peered out the hallway door before slipping away to change her costume.
On the way home, Steve tallied up all the first-night problems. “Props misplaced, timed effects off,” he grumbled as we turned up the long, dark road leading to our mountainside B and B. “The cord for the dining room lighting effects got looped around the backdrop’s right leg and nearly pulled it down. Upstairs, a sound-effects box blew a fuse, and the ghostly moan sounded like a fart cushion. That audience was laughing uproariously. The nursery maid forgot her lines and started crying, which I guess was fine since she’d already been accused of necklace theft. Doug had to replay the whole scene by himself.”
“Doug saves the day,” I muttered. “He must have been thrilled. And about those rumbling Romeos?”
“These hot days is the mad blood stirring,” he muttered, which I took to mean he hadn’t decided yet.
That was Tuesday, opening night. On Wednesday Steve and Mike double-checked every cord placement and taped a bunch more stuff down so it couldn’t move. Except it did. Three rooms lost either sound effects or lighting despite all the extra tape. Mike left me the ghost’s remote control and went around troubleshooting all night.
Marnie played my daughter, and if she slouched in a most unhistorical way, at least she spoke her lines clearly and was untroubled by misplaced ghostly faces.
I, on the other hand, tensely anticipating equipment failures, almost convinced myself a girl’s face shimmered briefly into view in the corner Angie had pointed to. After the house lights came up, I had a good look at those corner bookshelves from my chair, and then from Angie’s. At shoulder height from the floor was a glass-fronted section, now slightly ajar and reflecting the room behind us. Anyone who peered around the backdrop in that opposite corner might appear as a ghostly face, right there. I shoved the little glass door properly shut, wondering exactly who had been back there when Mike wasn’t. Had someone been creeping around to all the rooms, sabotaging stuff?
“We need to make sure before showtime that there’s nobody in this house who shouldn’t be here,” I told Steve that night. “And all the doors, except the front one, ought to be locked.”
“They’re supposed to be.” He frowned. “If it’s high school kids messing around their classmates, we’ll catch them tomorrow.”
His optimism was unwarranted. Our third night was worse, beginning with the news that somebody had strewn props in an upstairs bedroom and unscrewed a duct grating. Maureen waved her phone with its photo evidence and waived all blame for the mess we’d find where she and her docent had shoved everything into the closet between their first and second school tours that morning.
“We had to give our spiel about the great-aunt and her lost necklace in the upstairs hallway. We said construction was going on in there. Please, keep your crap together.”
While Mike and Steve untangled cables and figured out if anything vital was missing, I helped the props assistant check other rooms. A dozen props had been knocked off tables or fallen behind chair cushions, seemingly at random. As we gathered for a quick bite before the actors arrived, we agreed to stow all the props and equipment in the one lockable attic room between shows. Nobody could tamper with it there.
Then Angie was late, hurrying into the library moments before curtain, still tucking her ashen hair under her long chestnut wig. I told her bland boyfriend to scram, but it was too close to curtain to make sure he went. Instead, he hovered in the hall giving Angie a thumbs-up over the audience’s heads and texting her between groups. Eventually, a paying guest told him to quit fooling around. Before the next group got there, I told him to get lost and, if he valued his life, he’d better watch where he put his big feet, since any loose cables would be blamed on him.
Too bad the script didn’t call for a full-blown adolescent sulk. Angie could’ve won an Oscar.
Thalia helped me box up our props for the trip to the attic. “You realize Angie and her boyfriend were poking around in the cellar, right? That’s why she wasn’t ready.”
Steve would have had a pithy quote about flighty girls. I just groaned.
The start of Friday night’s show fell apart when Marnie tripped on the hem of her costume and kissed the linen closet’s oak doorframe. I gave her immediate first aid, but she’d bled down her white muslin front and knocked a molar loose. Her mother hurried her off to the Urgent Care Center. Angie, called in at the last minute, showed up with her sneaky Benvolio in tow. Thalia gave him a glare worthy of a Macbeth witch.
“You! Sit in the hall where I can see you, and keep your mouth shut. One more bit of trouble, and I’ll be talking to your drama teacher, as well as your parents.”
All went smoothly for séance after séance. No bumps and crashes from elsewhere disrupted any performances. The bugs seemed to have finally been shaken out of the production. Or so I thought, until Angie leaped to her feet and screamed, “She’s back!”
She staggered toward the gawking audience. As her mother, I grabbed her around the shoulders and all but wrestled her back to her chair.
“Darling,” I improvised, “you know we’re not supposed to move or speak. Pray hush, so we can hear what the ghost has to tell us!”
While I fumbled in my chair cushions for my dropped remote, Thalia repeated her ghostly exhortations with ever-increasing menace. At last I found the device and thumbed the switch. The smoke swirled up, the ghost wavered into being, and for an instant I saw a second girl superimposed on the projection. Angie gave a strangled gasp and clamped her mouth shut, leaving me and Thalia to improvise to the end.
When the audience had moved on, Angie said flatly, “I’m not doing this anymore.”
She was gone before I could open my mouth.
I looked at Thalia. “Too late to call in the understudy. We’ve got six minutes to split up her lines before the next group arrives.”
A voice behind me said timidly, “I know the lines.”
Peeking around the backdrop was another teenager, already wearing a long muslin dress that looked even more authentic than Angie’s. Her gleaming chestnut hair, or wig, was rolled back from her face and tied with a huge bow. It was a lovely early 1900s style I could use for my portrait, if I ever got back to it.
“I know all the lines,” she repeated. “I’ve been listening every night.”
Had hers been the reflection Angie and I had both seen? Maybe she had been trying to sabotage Angie’s performance for exactly this chance, but there wasn’t time to interrogate her. The next group would be coming along from the parlor any minute now.
Thalia looked at her watch. “Four minutes. Take your seat, kid. If you dry—can’t remember the next line—just raise one hand to that cross you’re wearing, and I’ll cover for you.”
The understudy didn’t dry. She was calmer than Angie, more emotive than Marnie. When the last audience group passed, I closed the hallway doors and turned to ask her why she hadn’t got the principal role. Only the wavering backdrop showed she had been there at all. As we packed up our props, I said to Thalia, “If you won’t sign her drama class paper, I will. She’s a natural.”
Angie didn’t show up for her Saturday night performance, but the understudy was there on time, costumed and line-perfect again. Since it was a weekend, she could have stayed for the debriefing and pizza party, but she vanished the moment the last group left our doorway. I asked the teen playing the nursery maid for her name. She looked at me blankly over her double-pepperoni slice.
“I’m Angie’s understudy.”
“Then who was…?”
She took a bite instead of answering. I asked some other kids, but they didn’t recognize my description, either. For all I knew, the girl’s daytime guise involved purple hair, raccoon eyes, and 27 earrings.
Marnie was back for the Sunday matinee, her swollen lip not too visible under the makeup. She gamely ran her lines, and I made a point of congratulating her at the end of the afternoon.
“By Tuesday night, you should be fighting fit again. Are you taking over Angie’s shows all week, or will the understudy?”
She shrugged. “I’ll find out in drama class tomorrow.”
The students helped pack up the props, but even so it was near dark before Steve and I swept the house for stragglers and locked the kitchen door behind us. He was loading the last boxes into our truck when I realized my phone still sat upstairs on my makeup table. Taking the key from Steve’s jacket, I hurried toward the house.
The lone bulb over the back door suddenly seemed very dim, and every faint scratch of a leaf echoed in the deepening night. It almost seemed as if there were voices inside, too. I told myself firmly to stop imagining things and get in there.
Unlocking the back door, I sped across the kitchen by the Exit sign’s glow and tugged the light string above the steep back stairs. Before the bare bulb stopped swaying, I went up two steps at a time while the house pinged and creaked around me. I’d barely collected my phone when I distinctly heard a voice. It echoed faintly, like it came from a far-off room. I leaned back into the dressing room and listened. Sure enough, it was coming up through the cold air return’s grille.
“I can’t reach,” said a voice I knew well. “Boost me higher.”
Texting Steve to meet me at the back door, I crept down the main stairs. A quick glance into the dining room showed nobody. The gift shop was locked up tight. Parlor? Nobody there, either. I peered into the library, but it, too, was empty. Using my phone flashlight, I checked the servants’ passage and butler’s pantry. Not a soul.
The voices came again…beneath my feet.
Opening the back door, I whispered to Steve, “Somebody’s in the cellar.”
We hurried across the dying grass to the sloping doors that opened to the cellar. Each taking a handle, we threw open the doors and flashed our phone lights down the wide steps.
“Thalia,” I called. “We know you’re down there. Come up right now.”
The silence stretched.
I added, “Is that Tib I heard helping you?”
A diffuse circle of light bobbed across the old cement floor. Thalia and her nephew came into view, his shoulders hunched and hers defiantly back.
She glared up at us. “We have as much right to be here as anybody.”
“Yeah.” Tib’s movie-idol lips curled. “We’re descendants of the guy who built it.”
“His kids sold it 80 years ago,” Steve said. “You’ve no right to be trespassing.”
“You’re searching for the necklace, right?” I asked.
Thalia switched her angry gaze to me. “He paid that countess for it. If anybody deserves it now, it’s us.”
I glared back. “So, in the library that day, the incense was a cover story?”
Tib started to speak, but Thalia elbowed him in the ribs. “And why not? We weren’t disturbing the tour.”
“You were both trespassing.” Steve gave them an over-the-glasses look that had terrorized generations of students. “You especially, Tib. Do you want to end your high school career with a police record? Get up here.”
“There’s no performance for almost 48 hours,” I said as the two of them reached the lawn. “That’s plenty of time for you to think about how the cast will feel about you both using the play as a cover for this quest.”
Thalia’s arrogance deflated slightly. “Do you have to tell them?”
Steve and I exchanged glances. Neither of us really wanted to break in another medium. He turned the steely eyeball onto Thalia again.
“I haven’t decided yet. If there’s any more trouble, you can be sure I will. And before you get the bright idea of coming back after we’re gone, I’ll be telling the cops we ran off an intruder tonight. They’ll drive by several times a night from now on.”
As they slunk off down the alley, Steve muttered, “I want an extra padlock on this door. Can you wait for supper a while longer?”
“Where will you get a padlock and hasp at this time on a Sunday?”
Mike arrived with one in under 15 minutes. He’d also brought a squealer alarm: two little plastic boxes sticking together with magnetic strips. He screwed one box to the underside of each door, at the upper middle corner. When the doors were shut, the magnets held each other, but when either door opened the magnets split, sending out a high-pitched squeal. Someone’s dog barked, and the people across the alley opened their patio doors to investigate.
“Fire department,” Mike called out. “Security check on the mansion.”
By then, it was nearly 8 p.m., and we faced a half-hour drive home. So we turned the other way, and bought pizza to eat in the car. As I was shoving the first bite into my mouth, Steve turned back toward the mansion.
“Just to be sure they didn’t sneak back,” he said.
“Did I remember to tell you Thalia said Angie and her boyfriend were searching in the cellar? I wonder if that’s what gave her the idea.”
“Civil blood makes civil hands unclean.” Steve groped toward the pizza box. “If I’d known half the cast would be questing for hidden treasure, I wouldn’t have suggested performing here.”
The old mansion seemed just as we’d left it, shrouded by bare elm branches against a moonless sky. We idled along the alley and across the front without seeing anything move but wind-tossed bushes. As Steve put his foot on the gas, I took a final look over my shoulder and nearly choked on my pizza. Was that a white dress glimmering in an upstairs window?
Only a curtain, catching a streetlight’s glow. Or so I told myself. If anybody had snuck back inside, the neighbor’s dog would’ve been barking.
I decided against mentioning it to Steve, but I called Maureen as soon as we were home.
“Second window from the chimney on the library side?”
“You wouldn’t believe the number of calls I’ve had about this over the years. I used to go check it out, but there was never anyone. It’s gotta be the lights of a car coming down the hill. They hit the upper windows for a few seconds when there’s no leaves left on the trees. That’s all it is—a reflection.”
“If you say so.”
But that night, I lay awake thinking of a lonely orphan, unwanted in her rich relatives’ house. Berated, accused of theft, possibly beaten. Maybe even pushed down those steep back stairs.
If I told Steve this, he’d only say I was taking my role way too seriously. So I didn’t.
No play Monday. The house was closed all day. That night, I went back to my painting class. As I stared at my easel, I realized the orphan I’d imagined last night was the face on my canvas. Interesting that she resembled the talented understudy. Working from memory, I deepened her eyes, darkened her eyebrows, and toned down her lips. The poufs of hair rolled back from her forehead got puffed up more, and I brightened them with golden highlights, as if she was in a gaslit library.
The instructor looked over my shoulder part way through. “That’s got real life now. And that wistful expression. Well done.”
It was raining when I left, a steady autumn drizzle that soaked my coat through at the shoulders. I drove toward the mansion, even though it wasn’t on my direct route home, and pulled up where I could see the upper window again. If car headlights on the hill hit it, my half doubt would be laid to rest.
Nothing showed at the window, or in the yard. If Angie, Thalia, or their respective sidekicks were sneaking around, I’d call the cops on them. Angie was effectively replaced already, and Thalia could be. With sufficient black eyeliner and draperies, Steve could summon the spirits for the final five performances.
The rain gave a few last spits and quit. I started to feel silly. Starting up the car, I turned into the alley for a final sweep along the back before leaving. My headlights struck a young man peering in the kitchen window. I had barely time to register that he wasn’t dressed normally before he leaped down the steps and vanished. I was halfway out of my car before it struck me that chasing an unknown male in the darkness was a bad idea. I ducked back in, locked my doors, and called the cops and Maureen. Then I drove out to the street and parked under a streetlight, where nobody could sneak up on me unseen.
Maureen reached me before the cops did. We sat together in my front seat while the two constables searched around the place. One cop eventually went back to her vehicle; the other came to us.
“No wet footprints on the back porch or steps,” he said. “No doors or windows tampered with. Are you sure you saw somebody?”
“Absolutely. He jumped down the back steps and took off running. I thought he went into those bushes by the coach house. But I guess you looked there?”
The constable nodded. “He’d be halfway down the alley before you got your phone out. Can you tell us what he looked like? What he wore?”
I closed my eyes, recapturing the image. “His head came up to the middle lattice on the window, so he’s a bit taller than me. Baggy pants, maybe brown? Whitish shirt. I almost couldn’t see his shoulders against the house wall.” My eyes popped open. “Suspenders! Nobody wears suspenders these days. Well, except really old men. And this one moved way too fast to be old.”
The cop leaned in my window. I thought he sniffed slightly. Did he suspect I’d been drinking? Smoking dope?
“I did see somebody,” I snapped. “Maureen can confirm we’ve had trouble with teenagers.”
“Well, there’s nobody here now,” he said. “We’ll keep an eye on the place. You go along home.”
And that was that.
Tuesday night’s performance went well enough, given that Thalia didn’t say two words to me outside the script. As a buffer we had Marnie. Afterward, when I was stacking props into the box by myself, I felt a cold draft. The screen wavered in the corner, but nobody came in. I turned back to the box, and clutched at my throat in reflexive astonishment.
“Where did you come from?” I asked the understudy.
“I’ve been around all evening,” she said, standing by the fireplace. “In case I was needed.”
Oh, great. Another teenager snooping around. If she wasn’t the best actor of her class, I’d tell her off. But the overhead light struck golden sparks from her chestnut wig, and I got briefly distracted by wondering if she’d let me take her photo to help with my portrait.
“That’s very nice of you to want to help.” I put the last props into the box. “Do you have anybody waiting for you? I saw a young man hanging around the back porch, peering in the kitchen window.”
Her hand went to her lips. “Was he wearing a brown tweed cap?”
I thought back. “Actually, he was. I was sidetracked by the suspenders. I take it you know him?”
Her face glowed. “I didn’t think he’d come back.”
“He’s been here twice that I know of. Do you need a ride home? We can drop you off on the way.”
“I’ll be fine.” She turned away and checked her hair in the mirror over the fireplace. She even pinched her cheeks in the time-honored way of getting color without blush.
“I would ask you to carry this box up to the attic,” I said, smiling at her sudden glow, “but you might trip in your long skirt on those stairs. You’d better hurry and get changed before we end up locking you in.”
She looked down at her dress. “I always wear this.”
Steve hollered from the downstairs hall. I picked up the box, shivered as another cold draft rattled the backdrop, and realized she was gone again. I made Steve and Mike double-check closets from the attic down to the outside cellar door, but they didn’t find her. She must have hurried out to meet her suspendered admirer. Maybe they role-played Edwardians outside school. That would explain why she seemed comfortable in her long muslin dress.
It was Marnie the next night, and no understudy. No problems, either. We hadn’t sold enough tickets to fill the last two group slots, but Steve assured the cast that wasn’t unexpected for midweek in a small town during the shoulder season. We’d surely have a full house again on the weekend.
It wasn’t much after nine when we let the last teens out the front door and killed the front porch lights. The rest of us separated to pack up the props and change clothes, while Steve and Mike started their closet checks. Then the squealer alarm shrilled through the night. In mixed costume and street clothing, we all raced down to the kitchen to peer outside.
By the dim bulb above the back door, we soon sorted out all the moving shadows and noises. Thalia’s nephew, Tib, tussled with Angie’s boyfriend. Angie darted around them, yelling and flapping her hands. The alarm squealed like a pig in a slaughterhouse. The dog across the alley barked up a storm. Outdoor lights went on, patio doors opened, people rushed out onto back porches.
Mike silenced the alarm.
Steve bellowed, “A plague on both your houses!”
The teenagers froze, then slowly separated.
Thalia rushed to Tib. “Are you hurt?”
Angie snapped, “He started it.”
“Quiet,” Steve roared.
I found my voice. “With all this racket, somebody has surely called the cops. You have one chance to get our support before they arrive. Which of you opened that cellar door?” The two boys eyed each other. Angie put on her Oscar-winning pout. I eyed Thalia. “If you care about that kid’s future, make him talk.”
She prodded him in the ribs. He tossed his messy movie-idol curls off his forehead. “Okay, fine. I opened the door. But only because he was gonna do it anyway.”
“I heard you planning it,” Tib sneered, leaning into Benvolio’s face. “Hiding behind the coach house, waiting until everyone was upstairs getting changed.”
Thalia yanked him backward. “That’s enough.”
“What I’d like to know,” I said, “is why you all think that basement is the place to search. It was thoroughly done over when the new boiler was installed in the 1980s.” Nobody spoke. “Okay, I’m calling Maureen. She can have you charged with trespassing and mischief, and I’m sure the cops will add a few.”
Thalia sniffed. “I told you we had a right to look, and we still think we do. But we don’t want the police involved, so I’ll tell you this much. Tib found a crack under the molding on the servant stairs, right where that girl fell down all those years ago. We couldn’t see anything from there or get our hands in, but I thought if we could find where it came out in the cellar, we could reach up and feel around.”
“Thank you.” I turned to Angie. “And you?”
She cut her eyes at her boyfriend. “He was hiding in the dressing room closet when Thalia and Tib discussed it. We thought they’d get it right away, but you threw them out, and then the cops were always around. Except during the performance.”
The cops pulled up then, and it was after 10 when everybody dispersed. I still wore Mother Gander’s dress, so I trudged back upstairs to change into my clothes, checking the costume’s hem for mud or grass stains. Overhead, Steve or Mike thumped around, checking the attic in case Suspender Boy had taken advantage of the chaos to sneak in. I gathered up all my belongings and headed for the back stairs. In the kitchen, I could put my feet up until the guys finished searching every room again.
I wasn’t thinking about where I was going, wasn’t even looking down, until something white moved in the dark stairwell. I stumbled, slipped, and skidded down the rest of the steps to the landing. My head slammed back against the lowest stair. I saw stars, even with my eyes closed. When I opened them, everything spun.
The stars were the better option.
After a bit, the stars faded. When I opened my eyes, the understudy was on her knees by my side. She was still fully made-up and wearing her pretty muslin costume. Even in my shattered state, I knew she had no business being here after 10 on a school night, but the words wouldn’t form on my tongue.
“Are you all right?” she asked tremulously. “This stair is so treacherous!”
She put her cool hand on my forehead. It eased the throbbing enough that my brain began to function again. My back ached, my ankle swelled. Nothing seemed to be broken. I tested my mouth again.
“I’m okay, “I croaked. “Why are you still here?”
She bit her lip. “I can’t get out of the house by myself.”
My eyes weren’t quite back to normal because she seemed to be wavering a bit.
“The back door unlocks from the side. You can open the bolt and go out anytime.”
A tear rolled down her cheek. I was starting to think she was a hallucination, because I could see through the hand she put up to wipe it away.
“I can’t,” she repeated. “It doesn’t work for me.”
“I don’t understand.” And then, suddenly, I did. “You’re her. You are Julia.”
“And you’ve been here in this house since 1913?”
“I guess. Until you all came and that lady started calling for me, I thought I was dreaming, and I couldn’t wake up.” Her smile bloomed, a trifle thin, but better than tears. “And then you talked to me, and you were dressed sort of like my uncle’s housekeeper. So I thought maybe I had been consumed by fever dreams for a time. But when I looked in the other rooms, I realized that nothing was the same, and I didn’t know what to do.”
I didn’t know what to do, either. I must be hallucinating from a head injury. Steve would find me soon, and she’d vanish as reality was restored.
But on the off chance, I asked, “What do you remember about the night you died?”
Julia sat near my feet and wrapped her arms around her knees. “That old Contessa was always yelling at me, blaming me for things. She accused me of stealing her earring, even though it fell under her dressing table. She kept telling my uncle I would surely steal the silver in the butler’s pantry, and made him lock the cupboard doors at night. When the necklace vanished, he locked me in my room, to stay until I confessed. But she unlocked the door and yelled at me. Then she hit me with her stick.” Her hand touched the hair above her ear.
“This was on the stairs?” I gestured, wincing as my head throbbed with the movement. “Here?”
“No, in my room. I was so dizzy. But she left the door ajar, so I took my chance to escape. You see,” she dropped her eyes to her hands, “her coachman was waiting outside for me. We planned to run away together.”
I sat up, slow and careful, and leaned my head against the wall for added stability. “That guy in the suspenders and hat?”
“Yes. You’re not shocked, are you? He truly loves me and wants—wanted—to rescue me from this awful life. I thought he was gone forever until you told me he was outside, still waiting.”
“Uh, sure.” It was as likely as anything else at the moment. “But that night?”
“I hid in the linen closet until everyone went to bed, and then I started down here.” Her puzzled eyes lifted to the flight behind me. “That was the last thing I remembered until I woke up later on this landing, and couldn’t get anybody to hear me. I tried to leave, but I can’t touch anything except the floor. See?” She laid her palm against the wall, and I watched it sink right through. She pulled it back. “I can’t open the door or walk through the outside walls. I was stuck here forever, unseen and unheard, until your friend told me to come back.”
Thalia was a real medium? Did she know? I vaguely recalled the incense she’d been burning in the library so many days ago. Maybe. She might have accidentally summoned both Julia and her coachman. He couldn’t get in, and Julia couldn’t get out. Real star-crossed lovers.
When I woke up, I was going to have a great story to tell Steve. Maybe he could work it into a new play for next fall.
“But do you know what happened to the necklace? Could it have fallen down a vent?”
“It’s right here.” She waved at the wall by my head. “You’re leaning on the laundry chute. The panel slides up, but the handle broke off long ago. The necklace is caught on a nail in there. I can put my hand in, but I can’t pull it out.” She eyed me speculatively. “Could you? If I show you where to pry up the panel?”
Sure. Why not? Before I woke up on the floor with Mike or Steve bending over me.
I hobbled to the kitchen, picked a butcher knife out of the block, and slid the tip where she showed me. The panel creaked. I pried it again. It crept a little further. Setting aside the blade, I squished my fingers into the gap and lifted in jerks until it gaped opened to my shoulder’s height. Looking into the dark hole, I saw stars again.
Yup. Concussion for sure. With hallucinations.
“Now feel down the inside as far as you can,” Julie instructed. “It’s hanging on a nail right there.”
I groped. There were spiderwebs. Shuddering, I felt among them until something hard moved under my fingers.
“That’s it!” she said.
Carefully, I twined an unseen fine chain around my index finger and gently eased it away from the wall. Something fell into my hand. Slowly, I withdrew my arm. Amid a century’s worth of cobwebs and dust were glints of yellow and red. I rubbed my thumb over the biggest piece. It shone red.
This was unquestionably a ruby in my palm. Surrounded by diamond chips, with filigree wings out to each side, each containing one smaller ruby and tipped with a ruby chip.
I blew the dust away as Julia cheered softly.
“You did it!” She swiped her hand through mine. The necklace shimmered. To my amazement, a ghostly copy lifted away with her fingers. “This is what I’ve been waiting for. Please, will you open the back door and see if I can leave now?”
I limped to the kitchen and opened the back door. She stood looking out, and then put one foot over the sill. It did not disappear. She stepped farther, completely outside the door, a shimmering, silvery girl in the moonlight.
“I’m free,” she said wonderingly.
Out of the darkness by the coach house came her young man, calling her name.
She rushed down the steps. He caught her in his arms and whirled her so that her fine muslin skirt flew out around her ankles. His voice was deep and hushed. “Did you get it?”
She held up the ghostly necklace. He laughed. Then he drew her away.
“Wait!” I hobbled outside as fast as I could. “How did you know where it was? Did you put it there?”
She glanced back at me from the garden path. “Of course. How else were we going to start a new life together?”
Steve found me leaning on the railing of the creaky old back porch, with a lump the size of a Volkswagen on the back of my head and a fortune in cobwebbed rubies, diamond chips, and gold dangling from my fingers.
“What the hell happened to you?” he asked.
I blinked into the darkness, where the last faint trace of white muslin was fading before my eyes.
“You wouldn’t believe me if I told you. But the stars are uncrossed in fair Verona.”
He took me straight to the Urgent Care Center.